Greek Australian businessman Jim Xenos passed by a Santorini periptero (kiosk) to buy his beloved Carroten sunscreen during a family holiday in 2014.
A few moments later, as he tanned by his hotel’s infinity pool, with its turquoise blue merging into the darker blue of the mesmerising caldera, a soft breeze of pink bougainvillea leaves traipsed over the white sugar-cubed houses perched on the steep cliffs and fell onto his head like confetti – and it’s then, magically, that the businessman had an epiphany moment and began to contemplate what it would take to bring sun products in the popular Greek Carroten range from Greece to Australia.
A notion began to percolate, and in Mykonos, later in the trip, he shared his hypothetical idea with his long-time family friend and koumbaro, biochemist/businessman Steven Skliros, who travels with him to Greece every second year.
“He does a lot of importing of his stuff in his own industry (construction) and I do sales and marketing (in pharmaceuticals),” Mr Xenos told Neos Kosmos. “I said, ‘Look mate, what do you think? We should actually get our hands on this asset .’ And that’s how it started.”
Between bites of tomatokeftedes drowned by assyrtiko wine, and amidst island hopping and sightseeing, a business proposal began to unravel. By the end of their time in Mykonos, both the Xenos and the Skliros families were involved as wives and children brainstormed and contemplated what it would take to bring the experience of a Greek tan to Australian beaches.
“We thought, ‘how could this product not be in Australia?’ – but we didn’t know anything about sunscreen and therapeutic products at the time,” Mr Xenos said.
Before leaving Greece, consumed by passion and excited about their great ideas, they could not leave without sharing their insights with the Sarantis Group, one of the main producers and distributors of leading mass market cosmetics and the owners of the Carroten brand.
Swept away by the two men’s enthusiasm and fresh ideas, Sarantis showed an interest in the case they made as to why Australia and New Zealand should be the first countries outside Europe to have Carroten on their shelves though they already had advised there were some local trademark challenges to overcome. The two friends were not deterred by this and thus the journey began.
The rude awakening
Back in Australia the two men got to work.
“Within a fortnight of our holiday, we met up for dinner,” Mr Xenos said.
“We went for dinner to George Calombaris’ restaurant in Kew, Hellenic Republic. Steve said, ‘Are you serious about this?’ I said, ‘We should give it a red hot go.’”
Mr Skliros who lived in Greece in the late 70s and 80s is fluent in Greek and grew up learning from his father’s business experiences from the family-run souvlatzidiko at Kaningos Square in the centre of Athens.
“My father’s background helped me a little bit as well as my experience in importation and logistics,” Mr Skliros said, but he added that there was much more to learn along the way. “For therapeutic sunscreen products to be approved for sale in Australian, they must be TGA approved and registered. One of the key criteria is the manufacturing must be in a TGA GMP certified manufacturing facility,” Mr Skliros said.
As we investigated, we ascertained that Sarantis had a GMP certification to a certain level and more was needed to be done. We knew that we had to find an Australian manufacturing facility that was GMP certified to ensure that the ingredients in Carroten could be mimicked, offering ingredients that are in some ways identical to the sunscreens approved in Greece so that the SPF is certified by Australian standards.”
There were many challenges. “Our scientific background and some of the knowledge we had in the sector allowed us to be able to navigate around the challenges. It wasn’t an easy process. We didn’t just see a brand and bring it in,” Mr Xenos said.
“Even when you say water-resistant, the Australian metrics are different to the EU. For example, in Australia if you claim to have an SPF factor of 30 which becomes 26 post submersion in water then you can’t make the claim that it is water-resistant in Australia, whereas in Europe you can. Our regulations are different.”
Mr Skliros said “it took three years to commercialise, to overcome trademark challenges, to manufacture to Australian standards and be approved by the TGA PGA for local use, which was all achieved under the guidance of Sarantis to make sure that the formulation is the way it is supposed to be.”
The result? “Not only is the product in no way compromised, but it is also as good if not better than anything else on the market,” he said.
The beginning of success
“By the time we worked around all the requirements around trademarks, product formulations, the range itself, distribution, it was almost December 2018, so we missed a season. But I’ll never forget this. We bought in some stock and put it into Chemist Warehouse. There were three posts put up on Facebook by others, not us, of which two were from within the Greek community and one outside. That’s all it took for the product to go gangbusters. We ran out of stock. It sold within days and the Chemist Warehouse Call Centre had a meltdown.”
Both men felt vindicated. “Like many Greeks, we’d go to Greece and fill our bags with Carroten and then we’d run out, and we’d ask others to bring some back or wait for the next holiday,” Mr Skliros said, happy that he has been pivotal to bringing the feeling of a Greek holiday to Australians, adding however that it isn’t just Greeks drawn to the product. Just as things were set and looked promising, Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfire season brought an unprecedented 30 per cent drop in the category, followed by a global pandemic putting their plans on hold.
“The more challenging it got, the more committed we became,” Mr Skliros said.
“There have been challenges and we have managed to work through these and build a successful business. It has brought our families closer together.”
If anything, it has solidified a friendship which began for the two men back in the 80s at the Agora at La Trobe University when they were still students and thought they had their life mapped ahead of them before it meandered in all sorts of directions.
They both scoff at the adage that states that you should not mix business and pleasure, stating that business, in their case, is pleasure.
Thanks to their successful day jobs, they can work on their side hustle, which at the moment is carried out at each other’s kitchen tables at Ivanhoe and Kew and takes place after 6pm when their normal working day ends with the help of two team members covering Account Management and Marketing.
“It’s not about the money,” Mr Xenos said. “Money doesn’t govern our relationships but our desire to build and create something does. In the next three to five years we have our children coming through. Steve’s boys are finishing law and commerce and the younger boy is in business. My boys and daughter are doing business as well. So we’re all in this together. It’s about having a joint vision and passion.”
It’s also about inspiration, about sitting under the Greek sun and having an epiphany moment which you can share and develop with a friend.